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Pandemic forces new priorities for Tampa Bay youth sports teams that travel

Teams aren't necessarily saying no to tournaments, which make up a huge part of the summer schedule, but returning to play definitely looks different than before the coronavirus outbreak.

Dugouts sit as hollow as the cinder blocks that built them, with sports equipment lining the chain-link fences. The humming sound of the air conditioner that is usually white noise in a gym at full capacity now screams at full volume.

As professional teams around the country try to safely get back into a routine of sorts, youth sports teams have started practicing and competing around Tampa Bay with the same objective.

Even if the venues are a little less crowded than usual.

• • •

The reminders about cleanliness are constant.

“Sanitizer break,” Lady Bombers 10-under coach Bill Zesut screams across the field at the Eddie C. Moore Softball Complex. “Line up!”

The city of Clearwater randomly sends out inspectors to ensure players are abiding by social distance guidelines and amenities are used properly.

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At Rome & Sligh Park in Tampa, the Tampa Heat’s dugouts sit empty with the exception of some cleaning supplies. Each 9U player’s red bag — which stands only a little bit shorter than a player — lines the chain-link fence along the right side of the baseball diamond, 6 feet apart from each other, of course.

“You see the hand washing stations and the sanitizer and all the stuff that you didn’t sign up for when you decided to be a baseball coach,” bench coach Hans Loebel, 41, jokes. “It’s not been the season we planned for, but an interesting (one).”

Parents watch (socially distanced) from the stands as softball players with the Clearwater Lady Bombers take a water break during a team practice recently. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Safety measures are just as rigorous at the Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center, where the Thunder Bay Volleyball Academy holds multiple hour-long sessions each Saturday.

Players have their temperature checked outside of the gym by the pool area and are responsible for bringing their own volleyballs — which are wiped down before and after the session — and their waiver forms.

Tape markings on the floor and chairs ensure players don’t crowd each other. Coaches must wear masks and parents are not allowed inside the gym to watch. Working on ball-handling drills keeps movement and contact with each other to a minimum.

“If (the player) loses control of that ball, she does not go after that ball (during the drill),” says Walter Perkins III, a co-founder of the academy. “The coach runs after that ball.”

• • •

The Lady Bombers, who field teams with players ranging in age from 10 to 18, sent out guidelines from the city to parents before re-starting practices, and Zesut reinforced them with Zoom conferences. He then called his parents individually so any personal concerns could be addressed without the pressure of others listening in.

“The parents were like, as long as everyone is in compliance and we’re outside (we’re okay with returning),” said Zesut, 50. “I told them if you do not feel safe, then please let me know and we won’t hold it against you.”

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“We’re just excited,” said Stefanie Goggan, 41, of Odessa. “We’re a sports family, and not having sports was just tough.”

Goggan said 11-year-old daughter Hanna and her softball teammates are old enough to understand what’s happening but not necessarily “why (the sport) was taken away from them.”

Clearwater Lady Bombers 12-under softball players scramble for a bunt during a team practice at the Eddie C. Moore Complex. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

“They were all so excited to get out,” Zesut recalled of that first day returning. “They wanted to jump all over and hug each other, but they couldn’t.”

When Perkins and Thunder Bay co-founder Ronnie Shamberger thought of re-opening the volleyball club in late May, they reached out to the parents of their 97 players. A large majority were ready to return to play with only 14 saying “maybe” and nine saying “no.”

Related: Is it too soon for youth soccer to return from the pandemic? Tampa Bay clubs disagree.

Thunder Bay plans to host multiple summer camps. If more people sign up than can be accommodated in one location, it will expand its camps to other gyms in the area.

Perkins and Shamberger, 55, pulled out of an annual AAU tournament in Orlando as well as some of the other tournaments they originally signed up for this season. They didn’t feel comfortable asking their teams to compete when no one knows what the pandemic will bring in the coming months.

• • •

Softball tournaments do have a different feel now, Lady Bombers president Jerry King said.

Parents no longer line the metal bleachers behind home plate and in between dugouts, screaming at the umpire for making a bad call or at players for missing a key play. They sit along the baseline past the dugouts or the outfield fence, which King, 41, says with a chuckle might work out better for some teams who don’t appreciate the extra background noise.

Dugouts are sanitized in between games, as benches are sprayed down and frequently touched surfaces are wiped down to help prevent the potential spread or contamination from one team to the next.

Gone are the days where you self-serve mustard and ketchup on your ballpark hotdog. Now you have to let the cashier at the concession counter know what extra condiments you’d like for your mid-afternoon snack.

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Coaches don’t exchange lineups prior to their games. Instead, they take pictures on their cell phones of the opposing team’s lineup, King said. Players can’t shake hands, so they settle for a tip of the cap as a sign of good sportsmanship.

But sometimes you can thank typical Florida weather for providing some semblance of normalcy.

Tampa Heat pitcher Ashton McGreal practices, while Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman offers advice. The baseball team is somewhat back to normal, already competing in summer tournaments. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

The Tampa Heat competed in the Lake City-based North Florida Summer Kickoff Tournament — its first competition in three months — on June 13 and 14.

The games that Saturday were postponed due to the rain. On Sunday, the team played five games back-to-back in turbo style. Their day started at 8 a.m., and they didn’t leave the field until after 7:30 p.m. But the long day was worth it as the Heat took home a first-place finish, scoring 43 runs and only allowing seven by their five opponents.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of fear in their eyes,” said coach Gerry Calderon, 42, of his kids, who have had a lot to process with the sudden layoff, then return with restrictions.

“I think just being out here playing baseball takes that (fear) away from them. … It just gets that out of their head and allows (them) to be a kid again.”

Contact Mari Faiello at Follow @faiello_mari.